I rubbed the constricting chill from my limbs as Simon checked us in at Vincent’s Italian Restaurant. It was warm and cramped inside, but I only rubbed my sleeves more vigorously.
Noticing my irritation, Simon said, “I’m sure he won’t bring her.”
I scowled at him. “Oh, I’ve got a feeling he will.”
Simon sighed and said that he just wanted to get through dinner for his father’s sake. A young waiter led us to the table where Pop-Pop Clark Blythe drank wine with my brother-in-law, Chet, and a woman we had never seen before. My step faltered. I wanted to turn around for the ladies’ room, but Simon nudged me onward.
Pop-Pop stood with a chapped-lipped smile. His pepper hair was still thick as ever, but his skin felt thin as he embraced me. He patted my seven-month-old baby bump, stretching the olive and burgundy fabric of my dress.
“The little bundle of love’s getting bigger,” he teased.
“You look like Christmas come early.”
I kissed the old man’s cheek, wishing him a happy anniversary.
Chet shuffled forward. Of the two brothers, Chet was probably the better looking, and he knew it. He shared Simon’s emerald eyes and Pop-Pop’s hair and square face. He was once married to my best friend, Gabrielle. When I met Simon after college, I thought I was doing her a favor introducing her to Simon’s adventurous, younger brother. Chet liked to parasail, ski, and take Gabrielle to friends’ parties.
But then they married. Gabrielle settled down as a florist and hoped passive-aggressively for children, but Chet wouldn’t even leave her with that much when he took off with the car.
Now in the restaurant, I could’ve slapped him one, but I just nodded back after he hugged Simon and nodded to me.
Chet gestured to the woman behind him and said, “This is Freddie, my fiancé.”
My eyes felt like coal in a furnace. There on Freddie’s finger was the braided, silver band Gabrielle once wore. Freddie must’ve weighed 108 pounds. She wore a black, leather pencil skirt and a silk blouse. Her dark, styled hair and silver jewelry with violet gems reminded me of a French poodle. I raised my eyebrows at the Michael Kors purse on the table—I could only ever afford a fake one in New York City. This woman either had money or came from money.
Freddie gracefully extended her hand to Simon. “Chet talks a lot about you,” she said.
He smiled and shook her hand. I took my seat before she could reach over to me, my hand on my belly as an excuse.
I sat on the end next to a seat that Pop-Pop insisted remain empty.
“For the missus,” he said. Mrs. Blythe had been a cute, curly-haired woman who could drop just about every curse word she knew like pennies in a mall fountain. She did all kinds of volunteer work for hospitals, animals, and education, and she got her husband out of the house. Sadly, she passed away from a long battle with cancer, and since then, Pop-Pop became adrift in his wave of heartache. He’d flip through photo albums and cook Mrs. Blythe’s favorite recipes when Simon and I visited.
Freddie sat across from him with Chet in the middle and Simon on the end. Simon asked when they got engaged.
Freddie said, “Two days ago when we got out of the theatre on West 45th Street.”
I gave Chet a tight smile. “Wow. That must’ve been expensive.”
Chet’s upper lip bulged as his tongue ran over his teeth. He managed a liquor store back in Pennsylvania. Whenever he came home to Gabrielle, he’d tell her business just wasn’t going well. She paid all the bills and for food, even when they went out together.
Chet waved away the comment. “Pa helped with the tickets.”
I looked at Simon. I could tell he caught on too by the way he frowned. “Pop went with you?”
“No,” Pop-Pop said, buttering a piece of garlic bread, “but Chet always talked about taking Gabby to the theatre, so I gave him a couple bucks.”
Simon glared at Chet. Chet scowled at Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop said that when he heard Chet was proposing, he was glad to help.
“I only wish that was me again.” Pop-Pop gazed upward and raised his glass of wine to the ceiling.
“Pa,” Chet wrapped an arm around Freddie. “This is Freddie.”
“I know,” Pop-Pop said with an innocent smile and bite of his bread, and it tickled me ever so slightly to know how much this annoyed Chet.
He kissed Freddie’s hair. “Sorry, babe.”
The waiter came and took our orders. Pop-Pop ordered Scungilli, his wife’s favorite dish, and a glass of wine for the seat next to him. Freddie looked searchingly at Chet who rolled his eyes. Simon nodded to the waiter. He returned about 30 minutes later with the food. The plate of Scungilli steamed like an offering to a pristine shrine of silverware.
All throughout dinner was stiff-necked and fractured conversations. Chet said he and Freddie dated on and off back in school, and he told high school stories about her. She’d blush and explain herself.
Chet said, squeezing Freddie’s waist, “I’d just never stopped thinking about her.”
Freddie smiled. My stomach simmered; even my baby was sick.
I watched as Freddie tore her garlic bread with the flat of her fingertips, keeping her manicure clear of crumbs, and pursed her lips when she chewed. Chet gave her cat-like smirks and pinched her thigh. Pop-Pop seemed oblivious. Simon smiled awkwardly. I finally had to go to the bathroom.
I staggered down the crooked aisle of wooden chairs and tables to the ladies’ room. I didn’t vomit, thank God. I went into a stall, peed, and cradled my stomach. I thought of what Chet did to Gabrielle and how I had what Gabrielle wanted most—a baby. I held back frustrated sobs and imagined constricting my fingers around Chet’s throat. Then when he was on life support, I’d turn it off and on like a light switch.
There was a knock on the stall.
“Bernie, sweetie?” Freddie called. “You okay?”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine, just pregnant.” I flushed the toilet and went to wash my hands. Freddie reapplied some mascara and watched me.
“I actually wanted to talk to you,” she said as I turned off the water. “Chet told me you were friends with his ex.”
My nostrils flared. I’d known Gabrielle since elementary school. We carpooled to dance every year, attended summer camps together, drove to the local diner every day in college for milkshakes or cocoa—she was the sister I never had.
“Still am,” I snapped. “She’s not dead you know.”
“Of course not,” Freddie said. “I just really hope my relationship with Chet doesn’t affect your opinion of me.”
Freddie rested her hands on her hips. She explained that when she moved back to Pennsylvania, she and Chet reconnected. He was still married but said he was getting a divorce, but Freddie said no.
“Then when he was single again, I didn’t want to say no,” she said. “But I swear, I never intended to ruin a marriage. I just don’t want you and Simon to have a bad opinion of me because I’m not that kind of woman. I waited until after the divorce.”
Freddie stopped there, waiting for a response. I looked down at my belly. Throughout dinner, I had looked for any excuse to hate Freddie: the tight skirt? It was tasteful. The Michael Kors? Maybe she earned it.
I tried to think of what she had that Gabrielle didn’t and decided that Gabrielle was too good for Chet, but then where did that leave Freddie?
I could smell a mixture of fragrances from Freddie—her lotion, her deodorant, her fruity perfume, and even her hairspray. My baby nudged my stomach. I glanced up and saw the sweat spreading under her arms. I sighed. Imagine the guts it took for her to clear her name, and besides, it wasn’t her fault Chet was an asshole.
“We’d love to have you over for Christmas,” I finally said as gently as I could.
Freddie smiled and nearly pounced on me. I flinched away.
“The baby.” Freddie apologized and giddily stroked the mound as if it were a pet we suddenly shared.
We weaved our way back to the table. The plates were gone and paper bags remained. Simon and Chet flipped through their wallets as Pop-Pop signed the check.
“I’m out of cash for the tip,” Chet said. He leaned forward. “You think you can cover me, Pa, and I’ll pay you back?”
Simon quickly put his hands over Pop-Pop’s. “I got it. Chet can pay me back.”
“Nah, hang on,” Chet said. He glanced at Freddie. “Can you cover me, babe?”
I frowned. Freddie began to rummage through her purse, and Chet smiled and leaned back in his seat.
And there it was—another Gabrielle.
I suddenly felt a thick, bubbling sauce rising to my throat from my cringing baby. My head burned. I reached for my water to cool down, but I snatched something stronger—Mrs. Blythe’s untouched glass of wine—and I splashed it into Chet’s face.
The violet-red drops dribbled down his shirt. Chet cursed. Freddie cried out. Mr. Blythe exploded into crackling laughter.
“What the hell was that?” Freddie cried.
I twisted the cup in my hands and said, “Trust me when I say a good girl like you can do much better than Chet.”
Freddie scurried after Chet but couldn’t enter the men’s room. My husband sighed and got up to check on him. Pop-Pop just cackled to himself and grabbed the bag with Mrs. Blythe’s Scuingilli and a bottle of her favorite wine.
“Here, Bernie,” he said. “This is for you.”